Austin Filmmakers: Short on Money, Not on Talent

By  · Published on August 27th, 2012

I received ton of emails after my “What Works for Austin Filmmakers?” post last week, which provided me with motivation to continue on with part two this week. One thing is obvious, this is a very touchy and emotional subject. Several filmmakers contacted me with their personal insights, all of which will appear one way or another in this or subsequent posts. Some emails were critical of certain members of the local film community, but I will not mention anyone’s names. My goal is to do whatever I can to help foster a more supportive and successful film community, so I am not here to get in the middle of any personal grievances. I do think there is a certain level of validity in many of the claims, but I will keep the criticisms as general as possible.

So, I ended my last post with my thoughts on micro-budget genre films and promised to discuss comedies next. Comedies have long been a part of micro-budget filmmaking (especially student films), but most of the time these comedies lack a strong script and passable production quality. Austin is extremely lucky in that it has a very talented go-to pool of comedic actors (I’m looking at you, Chris Doubek, John Merriman, Kerri Lendo, Ashley Spillers, Heather Kafka, Kelli Bland, Paul Gordon and everyone else whom I am forgetting at this particular juncture), but its the films with impressive writing and production values that have historically achieved a higher level of success.

This is how locally produced and shot comedies like Somebody Up There Likes Me (Tribeca Films), The Happy Poet (Cinema Libre) and Cinema Six (currently undistributed) have truly differentiated themselves from the rest. Those three films are not only some of my favorite recent Austin productions, but they are also some of my favorite comedies of the last few years. Sure, call me biased. Whatever.

So, blah, blah, blah… Austin has a lot of talent, but what is Austin lacking? Money. Money to keep our talented producers, directors, writers, actors and crew working in Austin. (Better tax incentives for Texas productions would be nice too.) Despite being a comparatively affordable city in which to live, Austin has not found a way to become a place to establish careers in film. Directors, actors and crews must work their asses off to make a living wage in production-related positions; but these are not passion projects, instead they must toil away on commercials and industrial videos. For those who are not interested in that line of work – or whose skill set is not conducive to commercial productions – there are not many other viable options.

A few local filmmakers have been able to snag lecturing gigs at University of Texas, St. Edward’s, Texas State, Austin Community College and The Austin School of Film; Austin Film Society and Austin Film Festival have also been known to employ burgeoning filmmakers; and Arts + Labor is an incredibly supportive company that has developed a collaborative environment for an impressive roster of talent. Otherwise, the remaining option is to find a full time job in another field altogether. Speaking from personal experience, this last option will almost certainly lead most aspiring talent away from their desired path. (One of these days I will return to screenwriting!) No matter what, the trick is to find employment with a lot of flexibility.

It is pretty obvious that the financial situation is not going to change until investors are willing to infuse capital into the local film community. There are a lot of local entities (Austin Film Society, Texas Film Commission, Texas Independent Film Network) that are very supportive of local filmmakers, but we need a lot more money to sustain the scene. Austin is certainly not lacking in wealthy inhabitants (many of whom contribute handsomely to other artistic endeavors), it will just take some convincing to lure them into funding local film productions. Of course, most of them will not just throw away their cash, they want whatever film(s) they decide to support to be financially successful. They will want to make a profit.

If we do not do something about the financial situation soon, I fear that more talent is going to leave Austin, like three of my favorite directors: Spencer Parsons, Kyle Henry and Steve Collins. I also wish that we could have convinced Wes Anderson and Athina Rachel Tsangari (and so many other talented UT grads) to stick around Austin after their respective tenures at UT, though I admit that leaving Austin was a great career move for each of them. The good news is that Austin has remained an attractive home base for established talent such as Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge, Terrence Malick, Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey. Personally, I would love to see some of them investing money into local productions.

I know I am biased because I live here, but I do think Austin could start cranking out a ton of high quality films if money found its way into the pockets of local producers. I can only imagine the amazing creations that Andrew Bujalski, Michael Tully, Bob Byington, Kat Candler, Bryan Poyser, Clay Liford, Geoff Marslett, Bob Ray, Berndt Mader, Paul Gordon, PJ Raval, Ben Steinbauer, Heather Courtney, Jonny Mars, Carlyn Hudson, Brandon Dickerson, Will Moore, Emily Hagins, Kyle Day and countless others could develop if they had decent budgets. Currently, local filmmakers must rely upon crowd-sourcing, grants from non-profits and personal loans to get their films made. Sure, crowd-sourcing seems to represent the future for micro-budget cinema, but will these films ever be able to reach the audiences they deserve on such small budgets?

I would also argue that Austin needs a much better support structure for micro-budget independent films – and not just local productions either. Unfortunately, this burden currently lies solely upon SXSW, Austin Film Festival and Cinema East; but several people I have communicated with in response to last week’s post believe that the film festival circuit (in general, not just locally) is inherently biased. The consensus is that festival programmers repeatedly help out their friends but they are less willing to take a chance on filmmakers they do not know. We all know what we like and do not like; we all have favorite directors and actors. Like it or not, festival programmers are no different. For better or worse, that is what gives each festival its own personality.

Regardless, it would be great if every worthwhile (which is subjective, of course) production was given a fighting chance in its hometown, whether by a festival or a local theater; because if a film cannot even get screened in its hometown, how will it ever have a chance of succeeding nationally? However, if theaters such as the Alamo Drafthouse and Violet Crown begin taking risks on local productions, will they be able to sell enough tickets to make it worth their while? Theaters like ReRun (Brooklyn), Facets (Chicago), Gene Siskell Film Center (Chicago), Downtown Independent (Los Angeles) and Texas Theatre (Dallas) are willing and able to support micro-budget films because they have the audiences to fill their seats; but currently the only way that Austinites seem to be willing to come out and support micro-budget films is if Austin Film Society, Austin Film Festival, SXSW, Texas Independent Film Network, The Show!, Tugg or Cinema East host a one-off screening.

Any thoughts about having a micro-budget film enjoy a successful theatrical run in Austin seem to be mere pipe dreams.

In other news, did you see the Blue Starlite Drive-In on NBC Nightly News on Saturday? (Check it out here.) Also on Saturday night, Austin’s ABC affiliate (KVUE) ran a story on the Blue Starlite. (Check it out here.)

Austin Movie Events This Week:

8/28 – Alamo South Lamar – To celebrate Drafthouse Film’s theatrical release of The Ambassador, director Mads Brügger will be in Austin to screen a double feature of The Ambassador and The Red Chapel. (More info)

8/28 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’s Essential Cinema Series features Internal Affairs. (More info)

8/29 – AFS Screening Room – AFS’s Avant Cinema presents Two by H.P. Lovecraft: The Whisperer in Darkness and Call of Cthulhu. (More info)

8/29–9/2 – Paramount Theatre – Sadly, the Summer Classic Film Series is nearing its end… This week they feature “new classics” such as Stranger Than Paradise, Mala Noche, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Dirty Dancing, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. (More info)

8/31 – PCL Plaza (UT) – Make Some Noise: Dance Party @ the Libraries features a free screening of Girl Walk // All Day. (More info)

8/31–9/1 – Alamo Ritz – The Late Show presents the film that made Christopher Nolan famous, Memento. (More info)

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